In the lower Rio Grande Valley, Mama had a best friend named Billie Burnside, three young daughters, and an always-traveling encyclopedia salesman for a husband. She also had a job slinging drinks at the Circle Inn lounge. My mother usually left my sisters and me at home when she worked. But there were times she’d have to take us to the bar.
My view of the Circle Inn was from under round barstools and tabletops. On tiptoe I could peer into the jukebox and loved to watch vinyl discs roll, plop, and spin. An arm with a needle would scratch out Don Gibson’s “Sweet Dreams” and “Oh Lonesome Me, ” or Marty Robbins “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).”
Redolent of beer malt and wood chips, cigarette smoke and the leather of cowboy boots, the bar reeked familiar smells of home. Mama would prop me on a booth with towers of beer coasters to entertain me. And the first words I learned to read were Budweiser and King of Beers.
I’d sort the cardboard coasters into stacks of circles and squares and watch my mother’s slim legs scissor by. Her skirts kissed the bottoms of her knees, and her trim ankles glided perfectly in high-heeled shoes on what she often referred to as her tired feet.
Unlike me, my nine- and ten-year-old sisters would entertain themselves with mischief. They’d steal an assortment of ingredients from behind the bar and blend potions in the bathroom sink. The worst incident, according to my oldest sister, was when they added the plop, plop, fizz, fizz of two Alka-Seltzer into God-only-knows-what other ingredients, drank it, and promptly threw up.
Billie Burnside, Mama’s best friend, had heard their retching, wiped their faces with cool towels, and cleaned up the mess. A regular at the Circle Inn, Billie preferred the noisy bar to her quiet house. She had a boyfriend but rarely saw him because he lived in Corpus Christy with his nagging wife.
During breaks my mother and Billie would dance with customers or swivel on barstools and chat. They had so much in common—both redheads, both chain smokers, and they were exactly the same size, which doubled their wardrobes. They even both dated married men, though Mama did so on the sly, while Billie had been long divorced.
Roger, Mama’s other man, wasted plenty of time swigging beer at the Circle Inn. He looked like John Wayne and smoked Sir Walter Raleighs. He didn’t like my mother hanging around with Billie. With an erupting, deep voice he’d yell at Mama sometimes, which sent me under tabletops plastered with wads of chewed gum.
Unfazed, my mother would rest her hands on her hips and tell Roger he could just go to hell or home to his wife and kids before she’d stop being friends with Billie Burnside. She loved Billie so much; she almost named me after her best friend. Then I would’ve been Billie Wilkerson. Thank goodness my father intervened and named me Darrelyn, a girl version of his name.
On nights Daddy was gone and Mama didn’t take us to the bar, my sisters would babysit me. Mostly I’d camp at the telephone table in the hall and sneak calls to my mother. We had a heavy black phone with a rotary dial, and the only way I could call was through the operator.
“This is the operator.”
“I need to talk to my mama.”
“Well—where is she?”
“At the Circle Inn. I need you to connect me.”
My oldest sister Jeanne would huff, cross her arms, and correct my manners. “Ask the operator to please connect you.” And then, “Stop calling Mama!” My middle sister, Janie, was too busy watching Wagon Train or Have Gun Will Travel to discipline me.
The operator would oblige my request numerous times throughout the evening. When Mama was too busy to talk, I’d draw pictures of telephones. I covered the hallway and both wallpapered bedrooms of our rental house with those black-eared marvels that held the voice of my mother.
It was the same telephone that rang in the middle of the night with bad news about Billie. The lights snapped on and Mama plucked my sisters and me out of bed and into her Rambler. As we sped to Billie’s house, Mama kept saying, “A fire! Billie got burned in a fire!”
Sure enough, when we arrived, Billie’s house stunk of smoke. We found her lying on the not-burnt side of the bed with a blue nightgown pulled above her singed waist. Mama said she needed a doctor because her wound was the size of a 45 LP. But Billie said, “If I step foot in that hospital, the whole town’ll be talkin’ about Billie Burnside burning her side.”
It would’ve been funny, except Billie’s voice wavered when she said it. We stood in silence and braced for her to wail or scream. Instead, she steadied her jaw and said, “Just pour me a drink.”
Mama didn’t leave the room to concoct Billie’s tonic. A half-empty bottle of Taaka and a cocktail glass sat next to a dirty ashtray on the bedside table.
“I fell asleep with a lit one, ” said Billie. She pulled back the bedspread to show us a black hole in the sheets. Then she gulped vodka while Mama dressed the lesion that would surely leave an ugly scar.
Afterward, Mama determined we’d spend the night. She corralled her brood into the living room and made us a pallet in front of the TV. I snuggled between my big sisters to watch Jack Paar. But I couldn’t pay attention for wondering if a person’s name could seal their fate. Had Daddy’s name spun mine? I had no way of knowing. What I did understand at the age of five was that adults had the worst kind of luck. Made even worse by the simplest of things—a drink, a cigarette, a name.
Photo by Alan Turkus, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Darrelyn Saloom, co-author of My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box.
Read more of Darrelyn’s story: “Too Close for Comfort”
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